Over the past few weeks, Canadians have been inundated with media reports of desperate migrants trekking over rugged, snow-covered terrain in freezing temperatures into Canada from the United States to claim asylum. The image of an RCMP officer joyfully welcoming a child migrant has likely appeared on your social media feed, along with a caption proudly proclaiming that refugees are welcome in Canada. This narrative of Canada as a shining castle on a hill and that its gates have been flung open for refugees is deeply flawed and does not reflect the enormous obstacles migrants face in obtaining asylum in Canada.
The improbable election of Donald J. Trump has caused many journalists to heed to the wisdom of Jeet Heer: take Trump and his campaign promises both literally and seriously. The Executive Order banning immigration from seven Muslim majority countries and refugees for a 120-day period was the clearest indication that this U.S. administration would be unlike any other. And with Trump’s aggressive crackdown on asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, it’s apparent that the impacts will be felt around the world, including Canada.
Given the situation, it’s hard to blame Canadians looking for an uplifting narrative against the dark, dystopian, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee messaging of Trump, particularly the journalists covering the migrants who have made their way north. However, their uncritical coverage will not age well, particularly if failed asylum seekers from the US are not successful in their efforts to remain here, and the burden of deporting and removing them is simply shifted from stern, armed and body-armored American ICE Officers to the stern, armed and body-armored Canada Border Service Agency Officers.
Canada is not a Disneyland for asylum seekers: there are miles to go before even those intrepid enough to cross international borders can rest easy. There is a rigorous, comprehensive set of requirements that refugee claimants must meet, failing which will result in their claims being denied and removal being initiated. Refugees need to establish their identity; they are barred from making a claim if the are ineligible due to criminality or security issues; and can even be removed even after their claims have been decided.
Over the past few years, only about half of all refugee claimants who made their claims in Canada have been successful, which amounts to, on average, less than ten thousand refugees per year.
Asylum seekers, particularly those that have issues establishing personal identity (practically everyone from Somalia) or fearing gender or violence as a result of their sexual orientation face serious obstacles in establishing their claims here. Additionally, there are strict requirements on the grounds and threshold of persecution. Persecution must be real, preventing them from returning to any region of their country of origin. Migrants seeking better economic opportunities, absent persecution on a personal level, will not be admitted as refugees under Canada’s refugee system. These are some of the basic challenges refugee claimants face in Canada, which is often glossed over by the narrative or bromide that refugees are welcome here.
Failing to recognize the significant challenges asylum seekers face in making their claims in Canada only emboldens those who want to shut Canada’s borders to those individuals in desperate need of asylum. Politics, in the words of Henry Adams, has always been about the systematic organization of hatreds, and over the last few weeks, we have witnessed the fanning of fear over the relatively small number of asylum seekers who have made their way north into Canada. For example, political leadership aspirants whose ambition greatly exceed their personal appeal are quick to stoke nativist sentiment; further,while the Conservatives are demanding action but can’t quite spell out what they think the government should do.
Let us be clear, this is a small leak and trickle, not a deluge and our refugee system has handled far more in years past. The Safe Third Country Agreement, which normally prevents making a refugee claim at a land port of entry by anyone that entered the US first, was only put into place in 2004. Prior to then, Canada was capable of processing asylum claims in an effective and fair manner. This is not a crisis, and should not be treated as one at this point.
Keep calm and carry on.